Hidden London: Soho

It says something for our mutual levels of organisation that, when we discovered we would have a (very rare) Saturday together in London, my mother and I set about planning what we would get up to. In fact, we even planned a wet weather back-up, just in case. What we did not make was a snow plan…

No matter. The first item on the agenda was brunch – a good thing regardless of meteorological conditions. [Bill’s is quickly usurping Le Pain Quotidien as favourite brunch venue. Highly recommended.]

It also didn’t matter because once I knew my mother’s plane had landed safely at Gatwick on Friday, and that she had successfully reached central London, there was really little that could scupper our plans. Yes, London had apparently been paralysed by the white stuff, but in truth, little was sticking around by Friday night/Saturday morning (I hadn’t even got the purple wellies out) and nothing was falling out of the sky. We do love a bit of snow hysteria.

Anyway, brunch out of the way and treacherous weather conditions overcome, we stuck to our original plan of an informative London walk. How I love to combine my passions – walking the streets of London; discovering fascinating facts; and sharing nuggets of information along the way…

In the summer, my parents had a weekend at my flat and made a lot of use of my copy of London’s Hidden Walks (so much use, in fact, that they’ve now done more of them than I have), so my mother had leapt at my suggestion that we do another. Our choice was the Soho stroll, only 2 miles long and within easy reach of home. Exploring the joys of Soho with your mother might sound like an inappropriate Saturday afternoon activity, but fortunately the walk kept us away from the more, er, colourful areas of the neighbourhood.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’m an out and out Londoner and find the walks fascinating – combining art & literature references with popular culture, politics and even churches. (It’s effectively the Clutterbuck holy grail for an excursion.) Yes, it involves walking around the city with what looks like a guide book clutched in your hand, making you look like a tourist. (A woman stopped to ask if we were lost – the humiliation!) Yes, it involves walking around in circles (I like to get where I’m going as quickly as possible). But it’s good to slow down, look, read and discover the hidden parts of the city. Plus, the great bonus is that once you’ve done a walk, you have fascinating facts to share with your companions whenever you pass that way again. Everyone loves a fascinating fact, don’t they?

Here are a few you can toss into conversation, the next time you happen to be in Soho…

Soho is littered with Charles Dickens connections, particularly references to A Tale of Two Cities. I’d long wondered what this golden arm sticking out of Foyles was for – turns out it’s in honour of Dr Manette – after whom the street was renamed.

The area was a hot bed of left-wing radicalism, sometimes very left wing. The Red Lion Pub was the site of the second communist congress, and Karl Marx’s family lived at a couple of different properties on Dean Street. Sadly, during this period three of his children died – one of cholera, ironically just around the corner from Dr John Snow who was awarded a Blue Plaque in honour of his achievements in wiping out cholera.

There is such a thing as a vegetarian pub – who knew?

Finally, when in Soho, there are plenty of opportunities for the statue game. Sadly, we were lacking Mim – the key component of the game – which was especially sad when we discovered this beauty in Soho square:

It’s probably a good thing she wasn’t with us. A subsequent Twitter conversation revealed that her preferred interpretation of it would have involved me being the horse…

Oh, and the squares of London always look good after a little fall of snow:

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